State Water Resources Research Institute Program

Project ID: 2008CA246B
Title: Securing Access to Water: Institutional Strategies for Coping with Drought and Water Scarcity
Project Type: Research
Start Date: 3/01/2008
End Date: 2/28/2009
Congressional District: 43
Focus Categories: Water Supply, Water Use, Drought
Principal Investigator: Lipschutz, Ronnie D.
Federal Funds: $ 25,511
Non-Federal Matching Funds: $ 14,297
Abstract: In California, as in many parts of the world, water shortages are an increasing threat. This is exacerbated by the assertion of claims to water by more diverse interests, resulting in intensified conflicts over how water should be allocated, used and managed when scarce. Yet water scarcity is an ambiguous concept. Usually defined in physical terms, this measure cannot adequately reflect its varied origins and dimensions where social and institutional realities are as significant as climatic circumstances. Only by exploring the social and natural causes of water shortages, including definitions of need and patterns of access to water, can we understand why some communities are vulnerable to water scarcity and drought and why some watersheds become degraded. This is essential to generating durable strategies to alleviate water shortages, and to addressing California's 2005 water plan goal of water supply security for all communities.

This project will therefore provide a more multifaceted analysis of how California's coastal communities and their institutions frame and experience the problem of a lack of water, and then promote solutions. Key assertions are first, that "need" and "scarcity" are part of a single equation where a water shortage is "less than that which is needed," and second, that access to water is critical to reducing vulnerability to drought. Problems are first, that water planning in California typically involves static assessments of status to define water needs and challenges to established patterns of water access and use are rare. Second, the needs of both communities and their natural environment have generally been addressed as separate problems and the impacts of policies and practices on powerfully coupled social and environmental systems have not been fully considered. Third, although water is California's lifeblood, and water institutions are the primary distributors of water, there has been no in-depth research and analysis of how these institutions characterize the needs of their constituencies and then plan for drought. This is despite the acknowledgement that the largest impediments to adequate water supplies in the 21st Century are institutions and public policies.

Questions central to this research are: (1) How do communities and their institutions settle on their water "needs" and then define a water shortage? (2) How can institutional policies and practices increase access to water and reduce vulnerability to drought for all communities and their ecosystems? Research will be guided by the following proposition: The definition of a need for water, the characterization of drought, and the strategies utilized to cope with drought, are linked to the biophysical and social histories of a region as these shape institutional configurations, legal rights, economic entitlements and social relations that affect access to water under conditions of scarcity. A corollary to our proposition is that achieving and maintaining access to water can reduce the vulnerability of a community to drought and water scarcity. These dimensions will provide the basis for an in-depth analysis of definitions of need and scarcity and how communities establish access to water, and an assessment of current and future strategies to cope with drought.

Study sites are Sonoma and Marin Counties and their linked Eel and Russian River watersheds, and Santa Cruz County and its local watersheds. All share a climate characterized by great physical and biological heterogeneity, with almost no rain in the summer and periodic long-term physical droughts. This leads to an uncertain supply of fresh water, both cyclically and between May and November. The counties are similar in that none receives water from the massive federal and state water projects and all rely exclusively on local or regional sources. However, Sonoma and Marin Counties receive varied amounts of water via an inter-basin transfer from the Eel River into the Russian River, while Santa Cruz County draws entirely on its local watersheds. In addition, the regions are geographically distinct, they contain extensive social diversity and they have quite different local histories. This has created unique entitlements to water and different abilities to access water. The result is different definitions of need and subsequent perceptions of drought and different strategies to address a lack of water. It is an ideal situation for a comparative exploration of how local conditions, embedded in the broader political economy, shape how communities achieve access to water and how their institutions frame their water needs, characterize drought, and generate plans to cope with water scarcity. Recent California legislation to address drought planning, such as the Urban Water Management Act, presume a community?s needs as fixed, examine current inputs and outputs, establish a static assessment of indicators and then propose solutions to potential water shortages. In addition, institutional solutions to cope with water shortages, including technological strategies that emphasize new supplies and managerial practices to increase efficiency such as water pricing, do not sufficiently address how water needs are generated in the first place, and how to balance water supply security for all communities with ecosystem sustainability. It is the thesis of this proposal that once drought is understood as a complex interaction between the physical attributes of a region and the its social and political-economic history, then institutional planners can more realistically frame strategies to reduce a region's vulnerability to water scarcity and comply with state goals that promote regional self-sufficiency, wise water management and resource sustainability.

Research will be focused at three levels: (i) The theoretical level - how are definitions of water "need" and water "scarcity" generated? (ii) The empirical level - what social and political conditions impact a community?s access to water and its vulnerability to water scarcity? (iii) The policy level - what policy options can reduce the vulnerability of water poor communities and better balance the distribution of water between different communities and between communities and ecosystems? The project will culminate with an analysis of current strategies in each county, their origins and impacts, and an assessment of potential feasible policy options. Methods will include historical and behavioral analysis to help expose the set of political realities and normative values that frame how communities achieve access to water, perceive water needs and water scarcity and generate strategies to alleviate water strategies. Policy analysis will be utilized to assess the impacts of particular strategies and to reveal the full dimensions of particular solutions to water scarcity. Finally, the project addresses drought planning in an area of small water systems often neglected in state assessments, yet most affected by a physical drought with respect to public health and safety impacts such as basic domestic, sanitation and firefighting purposes. The final goal of the research is a more comprehensive framework to assess how different institutional strategies can satisfy the water needs of all communities and sustainable ecosystems.

Progress/Completion Report, PDF

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